Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Minsk, December 19, 2022
The visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Minsk on Monday, accompanied by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, turned out to be immensely consequential for European security.
Putin drew attention to it rather obliquely at his news conference with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko at the fag-end of his initial statement when he revealed in an undertone the dramatic decision that Russia will provide a de facto “nuclear umbrella” to Belarus. Putin framed the historic decision in the following way:
“I believe it is also possible to continue implementing President Lukashenko’s proposal on training the Belarusian Army combat aircraft crews that have been re-equipped for potential use of air-launched ammunition with special warheads. I want to stress that this form of cooperation is not our invention. For example, the United States have conducted similar activities with their NATO allies for decades. These coordinated measures are extremely important in view of the tensions at the external borders of the Union State [Russia and Belarus.]”
Moscow has long voiced concern over the US keeping nuclear weapons in Europe and providing to NATO allies the technical capability to deliver nuclear warheads with nuclear-certified fighters. Air forces from across NATO regularly exercise nuclear deterrence capabilities.
In fact, disregarding the current heightened tensions, the NATO held a “routine, recurring training activity” through the fortnight from October 17 to 30 in an exercise over north-western Europe involving 14 countries and up to 60 aircraft of various types, including fourth and fifth generation fighter jets, as well as surveillance and tanker aircraft, and as in previous years, US B-52 long-range bombers flying from Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana.
Russia kept protesting against such brazen acts by the US and NATO in violation of the 1970 Treaty on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation, which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Apparently, the Kremlin has decided to react to the US belligerence, even if modestly and somewhat apologetically.
To be sure, in the backdrop of the NATO’s direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict and the new policy by the Biden Administration allowing “first use” of nuclear weapons, Moscow is left with no choice.
Over the past two decades, there has been a steady proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world and nuclear stockpiles have increased around the globe, while international relationships that could limit their proliferation have soured. And in the most recent months or weeks, the threat posed by these weapons has loomed larger than ever before since the end of the Cold War.
On March 28, over a month after the conflict erupted in Ukraine, the White House announced that President Joe Biden had signed off on a months-long, Pentagon-led review of US defence strategy and nuclear weapons policy and transmitted to Congress the classified version of the National Defense Strategy, which included the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the Missile Defense Review (MDR) as annexes.
The NPR reflects Biden’s rethink not to follow through on his 2020 electoral pledge to declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons was to deter a nuclear attack. Succinctly put, Biden’s new thinking leaves open the option to use nuclear weapons not only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but also to respond to non-nuclear threats.
Biden’s policy declares that the fundamental role of the US nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, but will still leave open the option that nuclear weapons could be used in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the US or its allies and partners. The Wall Street Journal reported quoting US officials that those extreme circumstances might include nuclear use to deter enemy’s conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks.
Although Cold War ended and nuclear war plans have been reduced since the mid-1990s, the US and Russia maintain their strategic forces on a “launch under attack” posture. Conceivably, Biden’s latest decision was likely influenced by the looming confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.
It will be a huge risk for Moscow to disregard the possibility of the US resorting to a nuclear strike against a non-nuclear threat in the Ukraine conflict, such as, for instance, Russia’s use of hypersonic weapons, which the NATO simply lacks the capability to counter.
Suffice to say, by providing nuclear umbrella to Belarus, Moscow is both strengthening its deterrent capability against a western attack as well as enhance its second strike capability. This is by no means an impromptu decision.
In retrospect, Defence Minister Shoigu’s unannounced visit to Belarus on December 3 falls into perspective. During the visit, Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed a protocol on amendments to the two countries’ joint regional security agreement of 1997.
Neither side divulged the contents of the secret protocol. However, there was a small giveaway — the signing ceremony was held at the Machulishchy air base outside Minsk, rather unusual. Now, Machulishchy air base in the Minsk oblast used to serve as a strategic bomber base and interceptor base for the Soviet Union. It was one of nine major operating locations for the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder in the mid-1960s, the first supersonic bomber to enter production in the Soviet Union.
After the signing ceremony, Shoigu went over to Minsk and met Lukashenko. Indeed, there are rumours floating around that a Russian attack on the Ukraine’s western region and Kiev (100 kms away from Belarus border) cannot be ruled out in a forthcoming winter offensive.
Be that as it may, prior to the visit to Minsk, Putin chaired a meeting with permanent Security Council members, via videoconference, last Friday to “review current issues of ensuring national security in various spheres… [and] also discuss our interaction with neighbours on certain highly significant aspects.”
And on Saturday, Putin visited the joint staff of all military branches involved in Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, to be briefed by commanders about future operations from a short-and mid-term perspective. Indeed, things are happening on expected lines.
Back on July 3, this was what Lukashenko said in a speech at the wreath-laying ceremony on the occasion of Belarus Independence Day: “We are the only country that supports the Russians in this struggle. Those who reproach us, did you not know that we have the closest alliance with the Russian Federation? With a state with which we are building a single, powerful, independent state – a Union state. Where there are two independent nations in the Union.
“And that they [Washington] didn’t know that we had created a single group of armed forces in the union of Belarus and Russia for a long time? In fact, a unified army. You knew all this, so why are you reproaching us today? We were and will continue to be together with fraternal Russia. Our participation in the ‘special operation’ was determined by me a long time ago.”
Equally, on Monday, Lukashenko announced the deployment of S-400 and and Iskander missile systems. All in all, it is possible to view Putin’s Minsk visit, first in 3 years, from the angle of Russia’s expected winter offensive. The NATO has been put on notice about Belarus’ deterrent capability.